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US officials Burns, McGurk in Cairo to close gaps in Gaza cease-fire talks

A White House spokesperson said there are differences that remain between the two sides, even after Hamas softened its demands in its latest counterproposal.
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 30: CIA Director William Burns and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines depart from the U.S. Capitol Building on January 30, 2024 in Washington, DC. Burns and Haines attended a briefing on Ukraine, Israel and the Middle East for the House Intelligence Committee and House Leadership. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has dispatched senior officials to Cairo to bridge the remaining gaps between Israel and Hamas on a proposal to end the nine-month war in the Gaza Strip and free the remaining hostages, White House spokesperson John Kirby said on Monday.

Kirby said CIA Director Bill Burns and the White House’s top official for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, were in the Egyptian capital to meet with officials from Jordan, Israel and Egypt. There would be follow-on discussions in the coming days, he said.

“There are still some gaps that remain in the two sides,” Kirby told reporters. “We wouldn't have sent the CIA director or Brett McGurk to Cairo if we didn't believe it was worth a shot.”

The cease-fire talks gained new momentum last week when Hamas submitted a counterproposal to the three-stage cease-fire and hostage-release plan outlined by President Joe Biden in late May and later endorsed by the UN Security Council. 

A Hamas official told Reuters on Saturday that the group has dropped its longstanding demand that Israel first agree to a permanent cease-fire before signing an agreement. The militant group has reportedly said a permanent end to the war could be negotiated with Israel during the truce’s initial six weeks. 

Negotiators from the United States, Egypt and Qatar have tried for months to reach an agreement to halt the war that the Gaza Health Ministry says has killed at least 38,100 people, a majority of them women and children. 

Israel launched its war in retaliation for the militants’ killing of 1,200 people and taking 250 hostages during its unprecedented cross-border attack on Oct. 7. About 120 hostages remain in Gaza, about a third of whom Israel says are believed dead. 

In a statement Sunday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would only agree to a deal that would “allow Israel to resume fighting until all of the objectives of the war have been achieved.”

Israeli forces on Monday began a new ground operation in Gaza City, where it says Hamas militants have regrouped. Hamas’ political leader Ismail Haniyeh was quoted as saying the renewed Israeli raids and evacuation orders for thousands of Palestinians in Gaza’s largest city “could bring the negotiation process back to square one.”

Kirby downplayed the latest comments from both sides that appear to cast doubt on a deal. 

“You see public comments that aren't necessarily fully reflective of the conversations that we're having privately with them or their interlocutors,” he said.